While disapproving of war, Elizabeth Thompson (later Lady Butler) respected deeply the heroism of the individual soldier. Writing in her diary on 9 May 1866, she observed: ‘My own reading of war – that mysteriously inevitable recurrence throughout the sorrowful history of our world – is that it calls forth the noblest and the basest impulses of human nature’. The meticulous accuracy she brought to her depictions of the Napoleonic, Afghan and Boer war campaigns of the British army made Lady Butler one of the most celebrated English military painters of the nineteenth century.
One of the highlights of the 1875 exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras records a heroic stand made by British forces on 16 June 1815, near the crossroads of Quatre Bras (south of Brussels), during the legendary Waterloo campaign against Napoleon’s armies. By forming a defensive square, the British troops, crouching in a field of rye, were able to withstand fierce attacks by the French cavalry.
This stirring battle composition was painted by the young Elizabeth Thompson with the full cooperation of the British army. In July 1874 the army arranged for three hundred men of the Royal Engineers to participate in a reconstruction of the four-deep square battle formation of the 28th Regiment, and to repeatedly fire their rifles for Thompson’s observation. Five of these soldiers also became models in the artist’s studio. In addition, a musketry instructor taught Thompson how to load the flintlock ‘Brown Bess’ musket used at the Battle of Waterloo, while the correct Waterloo uniform was recreated for her at the government clothing factory in London’s Pimlico district. Horses were also put through their paces for the artist, at both Sanger’s Circus and the Horse Guards’ riding school in London, so that she could accurately portray the charge of Napoleon’s cavalry.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from 19th century painting and sculpture in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 105.